It’s hard to think of a more consistently relevant artist in any style of music than trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. Over the last seven years, he’s chronicled the Civil Rights Movement, celebrated the endangered ecology of our Great Lakes and National Parks, and suggested that we shouldn’t stop with occupying Wall Street: as the title of his 2013 album instructs, we ought to Occupy the World. His song cycle Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs – streaming at Spotify – is his most ambitious and often harrowing release since his epic 2012 Civil Rights era narrative Ten Freedom Summers. In general, this album is more atmospheric – and in that sense enveloping – maybe because it’s about a pivotal moment and the embryonic days of the movement it springboarded. Smith is playing a weeklong stand with a series of ensembles, including some of the artists on this album, at the Stone at the New School starting on June 25 at 8:30 PM; cover is $20.
As with Ten Freedom Summers, this album’s orchestration is lavish: Smith plays as part of the BlueTrumpet Quartet with Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes, alongside the RedKoral string quartet and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. There are three singers: Karen Parks, Min Xiao-Fen and Carmina Escobar.
The opening instrumental prelude has a shattering, Shostakovian intensity: a horrified blaze of trumpets, sirening strings, disjointed anguish and yet, in the center of it all, a calm horn presenced which is probably Smith’s own portrayal of Parks’ determination to hold onto her seat and stand up for justice in the midst of assaults from all sides.
As the suspense mounts, there are keening highs over tense, expectant lows from the strings and slow exchanges with the brass. Maybe it’s the presence of Min Xiao-Fen and her spiky pipa, but the first vocal number, The Montgomery Bus Boycott has a big-sky Chinese pastoral vastness, a salute to solidarity and what it can accomplish.
Escobar’s fond but emphatic vocal matches the still sternness of the string quartet in The First Light, Gold, a shout-out to how Martin Luther King picked up the ball and ran with it after Rosa Parks got everything started. Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice and Liberation [Smith likes subtitles] is a slowly shifting tone poem for the whole ensemble plus samples from early works by Smith’s AACM collaborators Anthony Braxton on alto and Steve McCall on drums.
Parks sings Change It!, a soberingly poetic contemplation of democratic ideals clashing with reality, with an operatic intensity over mutedly pulsing and then resonant strings, akLaff flickering behind them. His majestically cynical, dismissive solo is sublime. Escobar takes the mic on The Truth, alternately spacious and insistent, then hands off to Min Xiao-Fen for No Fear, a hauntingly resonant setting of Rosa Parks’ own simple explanation of how she got up the courage to kick off a revolution.
More than a tinge of the macabre permeates the shivery, slowly unfolding Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake. Shalini Vijayan’s woundedly expressive viola solo introduces Min Xiao-Fen’s similarly moody vocal dramatics in The Second Light. Yet victory seems within reach as the trumpets enter in Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa; slipsliding strings remind that it won’t be an easy task.
Parks sings the last of the songs, Pure Love, a celestially lingering look at the Greek concept of agape via MLK. Smith saves his most dynamic solo for The Known World: Apartheid amid disembodied string horror. The brief postlude seems like a Pyrrhic victory until akLaff deliciously gets the last word. This music is as rich and as troubling as the history it commemorates: like Ten Freedom Summers, you can get lost in it. Count this among the half-dozen best albums of the past several months.